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Olympic Pride House: Photos of out athletes on display

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There’s more to look at at Pride House Whistler than just the TV screens and the handsome hosts.  The place is filled with original art work, from Gilbert Baker’s rainbow paintings to Edmund Haakonson’s nude hockey player, Slapshotolus.

There’s also Jeff Sheng’s photo exhibit Fearless, a collection of photographs of out LGBT high school and college athletes.  Jeff launched the exhibit this weekend at both locations of Pride House.  You can see a number of the photos on the wall at Pride House Whistler.

Here are some excerpts of a conversation I had with Jeff:

Jeff Sheng stands in front of some of his photos at Pride House Whistler

OutQ:  How did you get the idea to photograph out gay athletes?

Jeff:  I was a closeted athlete in high school.  I played tennis fairly competitively, and I quit the sport in college because of my perceived homophobia that I felt from my potential teammates from my college tennis team. I met more athletes who had a lot of similar homophobic stories to share who were closeted or coming out, and I decided that, in 2003, I’d begin this photo project on out high school and college athletes.

OutQ:  When you say that you perceived homophobia in tennis, what was it that made you feel like it wasn’t safe for you to come out?

Jeff:  There would always be things said about other people who were perceived to be gay.  In high school, for instance, a rival tennis coach had mannerisms that many people would associate with being gay–even though I know they’re blatant stereotypes.  And the tennis team in high school made so much fun of him that the coach of our team told us to stop.  There was also a senior when I was a freshman on the high school tennis team who came out, and we made fun of him so much that he quit the team.

One of the images from Fearless

OutQ: You made fun of him?

Jeff:  Yeah. I mean, that’s part of the story too.  When you’re 14 or 15 years old, and you’re a freshman in high school, you often times do things just because you think they’re cool or other people on the other team-seniors, juniors-lead, and you follow their example, whether it’s good or bad.

OutQ: So is this project a bit of repentance for you then?

Jeff:  Yes, very much so.  It’s repentance in many ways.  One is that I very much regret quitting the sport.  That was a decision I made in my life that I look back on and wish I hadn’t done.  And the other is yes, the fact that, when I was younger, I wasn’t able to come out in high school. I came out in college, so I was never an out competitive high school or collegiate athlete.  In many ways this photo project is trying to capture these heroes of mine that I very much look up to.

OutQ: How did you find out gay athletes?

Jeff: It was really hard.  The first year of the project, in 2003, I sent out mass emails to any organization–colleges, universities, high schools.  I got very few responses.  I finally was able to photograph maybe 10 athletes in 2004, five athletes in 2005, and it felt like the project wasn’t going anywhere.  In 2006, I started exhibiting the project at high schools and colleges around the country.  More and more campuses started inviting me to their schools.  And slowly, as the project got more buzz and reputation, I got more athletes to volunteer.

To read the rest of the interview and see more photos, click the link below.

Former ski racer and current Mr. Gay Canada Darren Bruce stands beside his photo in Jeff Sheng's Fearless exhibit.

OutQ:  Do these athletes report a lot of homophobia in their sporting lives?

Jeff: I think the most phobia I see is within the trans community–situations where a parent would accept them if they were lesbian or gay, but because they’re transgender, that’s just unacceptable.  I have another athlete who I photographed who writes about how hard it was for him to talk about his transgender identity to the women’s team that he was previously on because they would say he was a cheater.  His comment was, “I have no team to be on. I have no place in athletics.” And that’s just so hard for me.  How do you tell somebody they don’t belong in the athletic community?

OutQ:  Do the athletes of color find that their experiences of homophobia are compounded by racism?

Jeff: Athletes of color face multiple levels of discrimination, not just from their own communities in terms of being gay, but I think a lot of athletes of color don’t feel necessarily welcome by the gay and lesbian community in general.  That’s always been a really big issue.

OutQ:  It’s so hard already it seems for any queer athlete to feel comfortable coming out.  If you are a person of color who doesn’t feel comfortable in the gay community, even if you felt you could come out, then what’s that like?

Another image from Jeff's exhibit

Jeff: You know, I think that those athletes in my project who are athletes of color are unbelievably powerful, strong people.  In many ways, they represent the most fearless athletes in the project because of the way that they don’t let homophobia in athletics bother them and they don’t let the fact that they aren’t represented in the gay community as much bother them as well.  They are very powerful people, and I am often most inspired by them and hanging out with them and getting to know their stories.

OutQ: What other kinds of stories have you heard about athletes’ experiences of homophobia?

Jeff: When I was first starting the project in 2003, I remember interviewing a football player who had come out in high school, who actually decided not to be in the project–that actually happens more than you might think.  This one athlete had been beaten up by his teammates and had suffered a concussion or two from the experiences and just decided that he didn’t want to bring up that experience again and didn’t want to be known for that.

The opening of Jeff Sheng's Fearless at Pride House Whistler

Fast forward to 2009, when I met another athlete who was in high school who was a football player and baseball player who came out without any problems.  It was a really interesting contrast of experiences for me.

A number of women who come out tell me these stories about being called a “dyke” by other girls from the rival team who know that they’re out. You would think that in women’s sports, homophobia doesn’t exist, but it sometimes seems to happen even more so than in some men’s sports.  Women’s sports face the challenge of having to combat those stereotypes of having all lesbians on the team, and I think that part of the fear about stereotypes is the backlash against them.  Often times you hear these stories of female coaches who won’t come out and won’t ever come out because they don’t want to lose potential champion scholarship athletes who don’t want to play for a lesbian coach.

OutQ: What has been the reaction to the exhibit as it has traveled around?

Jeff: Most of the shows are in predominantly straight environments.  The response has been overwhelmingly positive.  They’re affected.  They aren’t necessarily affected in a happy rah rah way, but they’re thinking still when they leave the exhibition.

Gay athlete is golden

I’m happy to report that the queer nation medal count is now up to … ONE! Out lesbian speed skater Ireen Wust of The Netherlands took gold in the ladies 1500 meter race on Sunday, after falling short of the podium in two previous races.

Meanwhile, Norwegian lesbian cross-country skier Vibeke Skofterud failed to complete the ladies 15km pursuit on Friday. And on the hockey front, Erika Holst managed to stay out of the penalty box when Team Sweden met Team USA in hockey on Monday. The same could not be said for Team Canada’s Sarah Vaillancourt, who failed to score during Monday’s game against Finland, but did land a two minute penalty for cross-checking.


Written by heatherkitching

February 23, 2010 at 10:04 AM

One Response

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  1. I enjoyed the olympic games truly to their maximum. We watched practically every game. Unfortunally i thought that the bob sleigh track was a bit tricky, especially the 50-50 part. A lot of sporters went crashing there and even the first day with skeleton there was a tragically accident…

    Kevin Fuentes

    March 3, 2010 at 12:38 PM

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